Monday, February 2, 2009

Homeric warfare

This post will discuss what kind of "scrum" Nephite battles consisted of. The first version consists of a relatively bloodless combat similar to the battles described in the Illiad. The second involves greater participation and greater casualties evocative of shock battle.

In the Illiad, Homer describes a type of warfare that consisted of battle between elites. This involved relatively few people in that battle, which is one reason why the siege could go for ten years. It was also highly ritualized and one on one. Other societies have had similar conventions. European knights during the middle ages, the individual combat of the Samurai, and the Flower Wars of the Aztecs all have similar features to this style of combat.

Around the 6th century B.C. the Greeks went through what is called the "Hoplite Revolution". This revolution moved away from individual combat into a more egalitarian combat featuring the phalanx formation. (See: Harry Sidebottom's "A Very Short Introduction to Ancient Warfare") This type of combat stressed duty and discipline ("Staying in formation") more than individual heroics ("how many kills can I get").

An example of this shift is found in Virgil's Epic poem The Aeneid. In this poem, the Latin hero Turnus had penetrated the gate of the Greek colony. If he had opened the gate, i.e. shown the discipline of leader, the Latins would have won the battle. Fueled by the heroic impulse however, Turnus sought individual glory and fought and lost on his own. Thus by the time of the Pax Romana, Western society had thoroughly embraced the concept of discipline and subordinated the Achilles like tendency for individual glory. (See Victor David Hanson's Carnage and Culture chapter 8 for more)

In the Book of Mormon, it does not explicitly describe individual combat. In Alma 2:29-33, the Chief judge contended one on one with the apostate leader, and the Lamanite leader, then his bodyguards contended with the enemy king's bodyguards. There is also a whiff of editorial attack here, as the Lamanite King fled and allowed his bodyguards to cover his retreat. But the battle also described the attempt at gaining a beach head on the other side of the river, implying a vicious scrum. Thus the evidence is mixed for what type that episode describes.

The Book of Mosiah described small armies. And a situation where the people advanced without weapons, and with their women in front in order to dissuade an enemy attack.(Mosiah, 19:14-15; 20:24-25) This may describe a bloodless, individual and small scale combat. But the people were in a tributary relationship, so that may have skewed the conduct of war from the norm in other parts of the Book of Mormon. Plus, chapter 20 of Mosiah also suggests a violent war ("fought like lions for their pray" v. 10-11) and the people of Limhi seemed to ambush their foes ("laid wait in the fields and forests" v. 8). These both suggest a departure away from a style of combat which focuses on epic one on one duels for the glory of the hero, and a relatively bloodless encounter. And perhaps most damning, v. 12 mentions how the King was found wounded among the dead bodies. If there was a Homeric duel between the King and the general, there would be no mention of "finding" the body, it would have been obvious to the winner of the duel that he won and the body would be right in front of him.

These are just a few examples of the discussion that needs to take place concerning the method of battle described in the Book of Mormon. There is contradictory evidence, but more in favor of egalitarian and violent combat opposed to ritualistic individual combat. Finding out what the Book of Mormon says will help us develop contrasts and deeper understanding of other ancient cultures and literature, and it should help shape the current debate among Mesoamerican scholars concerning the nature of Battle.

2 comments:

Adam West said...

I'm glad I found your blog. I recently became interested in this same question regarding BoM warfare. What were the tactics like? Were there disciplined formations, or was it more of a sporadic melee from onset of each encounter? I think I'll dig a little deeper into your blog.

Adam West said...

I'm glad I found your blog, Mr. Deane. I've always been a military history/science enthusiast. I majored in political science and history from BYU-Idaho and currently serve in the Army as an adjutant. I'm planning on taking the M.A. in Military History from Norwich soon as well. I recently became interested in BoM warfare after watching some documentaries about the Mayan Civilization where they talked about Mayan warfare being highly ritualized.

I think I'll have to dig deeper into your blog, no doubt I'll find plenty of interesting posts.